SMBC on what separates humans from machines

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (Click through for full sized version and the red button caption.)

My own take on this is that what separates humans from machines is our survival instinct.  We intensely desire to survive, and procreate.  Machines, by and large, don’t.  At least they won’t unless we design them to.  If we ever did, we would effective be creating a race of slaves.  But it’s much more productive to create tools whose desires are to do what we design them to do, than design survival machines and then force them to do what we want them to.

Many people may say that the difference is more about sentience.  But sentience, the ability to feel, is simply how our biological programming manifests itself in our affective awareness.  A machine may have a type of sentience, but one calibrated for its designed purposes, rather than the ones evolution produces calibrated for gene preservation.

I do like that the strip uses the term “humanness” rather than “consciousness”, although both terms are inescapably tangled up with morality, particularly in what makes a particular system a subject of moral concern.

It’s interesting to ponder that what separates us from non-human animals may be what we have, or will have, in common with artificial intelligence, but what separates us from machines is what we have in common with other animals.  Humans may be the intersection between the age of organic life and the age of machine life.

Of course, eventually machine engineering and bioengineering may merge into one field.  In that sense, maybe it’s more accurate to describe modern humans as the link between evolved and engineered life.


SMBC: Fixing social media

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (click through for red button caption)

These days, I usually share these on Twitter, but this one seemed more relevant for this venue.

Despite using Twitter to share interesting articles and sites, I’ve never found it to be a great platform for actually sharing complex thoughts or having long conversations.  I’m too much of a pontificator to stay within the 280 character limit (or whatever it is these days).  On the few occasions that I’ve attempted it, the short pity exchanges that sometimes followed left me unsatisfied.

Blogging may be old fashioned at this point, but it still seems the best way on the internet to have thoughtful discussions.

The necessity of dexterity for civilization

Today’s SMBC highlights something about humanity that is often overlooked, something that any extraterrestrial intelligence that builds a civilization would have to have.

Click through for hover-text and red button caption.
Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – The Mammal Conspiracy

We often talk about the intelligence of dolphins, whales, cephalopods, elephants, and other species.  But something all of these species lack is an ability to alter and control their environment, at least in any detailed fashion, a capability that is at the heart of building a civilization.  When you think about the evolutionary steps that were necessary for humans to have the dexterity that we do, it starts to look like we were the benefactors of a very lucky sequence of events.

First, there needed to be a three dimensional environment like the interlocking tree branches that made the primate body plan adaptive.  Second, the primate line needed to evolve an intelligent line (the great apes).  Third, there needed to be a change in environment that led to some of those apes coming down from the trees to tall grasslands where walking upright was adaptive, freeing their hands for work other than locomotion or hanging.

Only then do we have the stage set for human intelligence to evolve.  Of course, it’s completely conceivable for alternate factors to lead to the evolution of those capabilities.  But the fact that, despite a number of relatively intelligent species in the animal kingdom, it’s only happened once on Earth should give us pause before concluding that it’s at all common for a civilization building species to evolve.

Intelligence and dexterity aren’t the only factors by the way.  Mastery of fire as a tool also seems crucial, something that seems to rule out water dwelling species like cephalopods, who if they lived longer, might have a decent chance at manipulating their environment.

Fermi’s paradox is the question which asks, if extraterrestrial civilizations are common, why weren’t we colonized long ago?  The rarity of the combination of intelligence and dexterity might give a pretty grounded answer to that question, and that’s before we even consider the likelihood of other evolutionary milestones, such as sexual reproduction or multi-cellular life.

So, when thinking about the evolution of human intelligence, be grateful for the existence of jungles and grasslands.  Without them, we might not be here, at least not with enough intelligence to discuss our evolution.

SMBC: A treatise on machine ethics

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

A better question might be, if a robot has conflicting programming, what will it do?  That seems to be where most human moral dilemmas arise, when our instincts are in conflict.

SMBC: What researchers study

This seems relevant to some of our discussion on the previous post.

via (Click though for hovertext and red button caption.)

The last caption may be in reference to these developments:



SMBC: Do ethics actually exist?

This is just too close to some of our recent discussions for me not to call attention to it.  As usual, Weiner knocks it out of the park.

(Click through for hovertext and red button caption.)

via: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal


SMBC: Robot heaven

Click through for full sized version and red button caption.

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Of course, the upshot is that if you view humans as organic machines, it opens the door to something like robot heaven eventually working for us.  We might someday build heaven.  Indeed, if it should turn out that there is a heaven waiting for us, it might well work similarly to robot heaven.

SMBC: The universality of mathematics, but not notation

This is pretty good, and it will exercise your mind for a minute.

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

The distinction between mathematical notation and its underlying reality is a crucial one.  The first is an invention of humans, the second is universal.  In fact, I’ve increasingly become convinced that the second actually is the universe, and mathematics is just us recognizing reality’s fundamental patterns, and devising mechanisms to describe and to model, to extrapolate, to make predictions, based on those patterns.

Of course, many of those predictions have no correlation in observed reality, at least none that has been observed yet.  Many mathematicians take delight in pointing out how useless many of their endeavors are.  Yet, despite this, many mathematical structures initially thought to be purely abstract do eventually end up being useful to model some aspect of nature.  The ones that don’t could be thought of as either untested or falsified scientific theories.

Another way to describe what I’m saying is that mathematics is the universe.  This is similar to but the reverse of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, which posits that the universe is a part of mathematics.  Both of these ideas see an equivalence between underlying mathematical realities and the universe, but with opposite ideas of which is the more primal reality.

Which one is true?  Like all metaphysical conundrums, I can’t see any way to know for sure.  But my personal judgment is that mathematics being the universe is simpler.  The universe being a subset of mathematics requires us to assume a trans-universe reality that we can’t observe, an assumption mathematics being the universe doesn’t require.

Of course, depending on exactly what we mean by “mathematics”, even if there is no trans-universe reality, the universe could still be thought of as a part of mathematics, but only in the same sense that it is a subset of all scientific theories, including both true and false ones.

Unless I’m missing something?

SMBC: Chinese room

I love this SMBC on the Chinese room thought experiment.

Click through for full sized version and the red caption button.

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

My regular readers know I’m not a big fan of the Chinese room thought experiment.  I think it only confirms whatever intuitions you already have.  If you think intelligence can’t come from the processing of symbolic information, then it seems to self evidently confirm that intuition.  If you think intelligence can come from that, then you intuitively conclude that the entire Chinese room is intelligent.

But my main beef with this thought experiment is that it’s ridiculous, and Weiner does a good job pointing that out.  In the real world, a person in a Chinese room, as described, would need to be in a room the size of a warehouse and, depending on the question, might take days, months, or years to provide a response.  It becomes more plausible if you actually put the person in there with a computer, but then the intuitive aspects start to disappear.

SMBC: What if the universe is made of math?

I loved this SMBC.  It echoes something I’ve observed before, that some physicists have disdain for philosophy, while often engaging in it themselves.

Hovertext: “Philosophy is dumb, unless it comes out of the mouth of a physicist.”

Click through for full sized version and red button caption.

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

I’ve discussed the question before on this blog on whether the universe is mathematics, mathematics is the universe, or some weird combination.  Personally, I’ve gradually become more convinced that the foundations of mathematics and logic are empirical, that they are our most fundamental theories about how the universe works.  This isn’t completely intuitive because we are born with some logic and quantity cognitive pre-wiring, giving the illusion, perhaps, that it comes from somewhere else.

One consequence of seeing math and logic as theories, is that they are subject to revision, something many will find intolerable.  Still, arguably quantum physics led to revision in logic.